'The Song of Names': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A schmaltzy chicken soup movie, good for you but gristly.

Clive Owen and Tim Roth star in Francois Girard's drama about a Jewish musician who barely escaped Poland before the Holocaust and his adopted English brother.

Clearly made by folks who are passionate about classical music, The Song of Names adapts music critic Norman Lebrecht's acclaimed novel of the same name for the big screen, producing — in the hands of director Francois Girard (The Red Violin, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) and composer Howard Shore, among others — a Holocaust-themed requiem.

It's lucky that Shore's original compositions here and the cuts from the classical repertoire, some performed with impressive skill by child actor Luke Doyle himself, are strong enough to give heft to an otherwise earnest, credulity-straining melodrama. But the globe-trotting story, starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen, is likely to appeal to specific demographics and could do alright as a niche release in select markets.  

Skittishly moving back and forth between scenes set at various points between the late 1930s and the mid-'80s, in chronological terms the story starts on the eve of World War II. Polish Jew Zygmunt Rapoport (Jakub Kotynski) has brought his son Dovidl (Doyle), a violin prodigy, to London in hopes of persuading one of his contacts there to help find a Jewish home where Dovidl would be safe from the Nazis.

Impressed by the 9-year-old's gift, music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend) offers to take him in, even though the Simmonds family isn't Jewish and would have to make accommodations for the boy. Zygmunt returns to Warsaw, leaving Dovidl behind, to try and protect his wife and Dovidl's two sisters back in Poland, but they don't make it out before the Nazis invade.

In London, Gilbert's son Martin (played first by Misha Handley until age 13, then Gerran Howell as a young man and Tim Roth as the middle-aged version) initially bridles over having to share a room with arrogant, mischievous Dovidl. But as the war rumbles on and Dovidl understandably worries about what might have happened to his family back in Poland, the two young men become as close as brothers.

After the war, there's still no sign or word of the Rapoport family back in Warsaw, and, fearing the worst, Dovidl (now played by Jonah Hauer-King) renounces his religion and pours himself into honing his craft. But on a night that is to be his grand musical debut at an auditorium Gilbert has spent his life savings on in order to launch his ward's career, Dovidl simply doesn't show up and is never heard from again.

All this is told in flashbacks, shuffled together with the '80s-set storyline in which Martin, now a musical examiner, notices a talented violinist (Max Macmillan) kiss his lump of rosin for good luck exactly the same way Dovidl used to. He becomes convinced the kid must have either been taught by Dovidl or someone else who was taught by him, and what do you know, he's right! Despite the discouragement of his wife Helen (Catherine McCormack), who also knew Dovidl back in the day but thinks he should let his quest go, Martin plows on in search of his old friend, schlepping from Poland to New York and back to London until he meets Clive Owen playing a key character and all is revealed.   

There is no denying that a sequence roughly halfway through where characters walk through the standing stones that memorialize the dead at the Nazi death camp Treblinka packs a wallop, especially with the accompaniment of Shore's keening, soaring score, one of his best. As a cinematic document that helps service the command written in many languages on one of those to stones to "Never Forget," this is a timely look at the horrors of the Holocaust.

But some viewers may experience a few niggling doubts about how we're supposed to feel about some of the characters, like Dovidl, who no doubt suffers enormously but also inflicts suffering on nearly everyone around him. Perhaps the point is that we're meant to forgive his sins not just because of his suffering but also because of his talent, like the way some give Roman Polanski a pass because of what he went through in the war and for Chinatown?

But any way you slice it, this is still a somewhat claggy, uneven work with stiff performances from the leads, both of whom seem to be sleep-talking lines as if they learned them in Yiddish first. The actors playing the younger versions of the characters shine more, especially in some of the show-stopping musical performance moments, such as a dueling fiddles scene set in an underground bomb shelter.

Production companies: Serendipity Point Films, Lyla Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle, Misha Handley, Stanley Townsend, Magdalena Cielecka, Eddie Izzard, Marina Hambro, Amy Sloan, Saul Rubinek, Richard Bremmer, Julian Wadham, Daniel Mutlu
Director: Francois Girard
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Caine, based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht
Producers: Robert Lantos, Lyse Lafontaine, Nick Hirschkorn
Executive producers: Mark Musselman, Randy Lennox, Peter Touche, Stephen Spence, Nadine Luque, Joe Iacono, Tibor Krsko, Anant Singh, Peter Watson, Jens Meurer, Klemens Hallman, Alan Howard, Christian Angermayer
Director of photography: David Franco
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designer: Anne Dixon
Editor: Michel Arcand
Music: Howard Shore
Casting: Kirsty Kinnear, Pam Dixon, Susie Figgis
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

Sales: Hanway

113 minutes